1. What is your background?
I grew up in Canton, South Dakota, a town that boasted 2600 friendly citizens. At one time one of those citizens was E.O. Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and Nobel Prize winner in physics (1939). Our new grade school was named after him, and perhaps it was under that influence that my brother and I built our own cyclotron in our garage when I was 12. I was already a budding scientist, but biology was my thing. I read books about Robert Hooke, Pasteur and Van Leeuwenhoek and hoped I might find cures for diseases. I grew things in petri dishes in my closet and in a freezer that had been unplugged. My mom ended that career after our cleaning lady opened my closet and fainted. I next became a rock hound and went everywhere with my rock pick. I was lucky to have relatives in the Black Hills where I could find beautiful rocks for my collection.
My other love was languages and that was ultimately what I pursued. When I was seven, my father was very ill and spent a year in a medical clinic in Guadalajara. My mom made us all learn Spanish by listening to records every morning before school. Later she insisted that my siblings and I learn Greek because she is half Greek. Our neighbor happened to be a Classics scholar and taught us Greek, but basically we learned to read and recite the New Testament. When I visited my Greek relatives they spoke the common language, which was not at all the same, and I recited Bible verses! In junior high and high school, the only language offered was German, as the basketball coach spoke it, so I added that to my list. I started college near home on a music scholarship (viola), but the next year I transferred to Middlebury College in Vermont and majored in German and Russian. I spent the first half of my senior year studying at Leningrad State University. Ours was only the second group of undergrads to go there. We had five Americans and one Russian in our dorm rooms across the river from the Winter Palace. It was an amazing adventure. After graduating from Middlebury, I toured the USSR with a US Information Agency exhibit on outdoor recreation and traveled to Moscow, Ufa and Irkutsk. I shot arrows at a target, showed off camping equipment, boats and a Winnebago, and made the Russians jealous of our ability to go wherever and whenever we wanted (They had to have a permit to travel and could not move from city to city without permission).
2. Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress?
I came to DC to work for a new congressman from my home state. However, I really wanted to finish my Master’s Degree in Russian Language and Literature at Middlebury’s Russian Summer School, so I left after six months. After getting my degree, I looked for a job in Washington where I could use my language skills. A friend’s husband who spoke 12 languages worked at LC and told me there was an opening in the Federal Research Division, a part of the Library that contracts to other government agencies. I applied and got a job writing abstracts of foreign language medical articles for an Army contract. The next year the Division started compiling the Soviet Laser Bibliography for the Defense Intelligence Agency and I headed up that project scanning Russian journals and indexes for laser items. When that project started to dwindle I moved into translating articles and book chapters from Russian on oceanography and radar and then did a project on biological warfare, all from open source materials. At the same time, I had decided that since I was at the Library of Congress, I should pursue a Master’s in Library Science, so I attended night classes at Catholic University. My big break came in 1987 when there was an opening for a reference librarian in the Science Reference Section and they needed someone who could also handle recommending on Russian books. I had interviewed the Head of Reference, Connie Carter, for one of my classes and thought it would be a fun place to work. I was right, and it’s still fun after 24 years,
3. How would you describe your job at the Library of Congress?
It would be hard to find anything more interesting and varied. When you sit at a reference desk you never know what the next question will be. It can be very challenging, and every day is an opportunity to learn something new. Besides helping researchers in person, we all answer questions from every corner of the earth through our email system, Ask a Librarian. We could be completely busy doing that, but we also have a reference collection to keep current, recommending duties (I look at new medical journals and books), bibliographies to publish, and there seems to be a constant flow of special visitors and groups who want to take advantage of our expertise and knowledge of the collections.
4. Do you have a favorite library collection or program?
I love old books, so cruising in the stacks and looking at old medical books and nature books gives me a high. Some of the books still have the engraved leather covers and are really beautiful. Once I came across a book by Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours by a Lady, which was already the sixth edition in 1854, but unlike other editions, it had gorgeous lithographs of birds and plants created by the author herself. I found so many fabulous books on nature and nature writing that I just had to show them off in an exhibit in our reading room.
5. If you weren’t a librarian, what would you want to be?
I always thought it would be fun to teach kids music, but my big dream was to act in movies or be a singer/songwriter. I still plan to write a novel, so stay tuned.
Stephanie has contributed to Inside Adams before with her My Favorite Day post.